Ethar El-Katatney

Muslim vs. American?

Posted in Egypt Today by Ethar El-Katatney on December 17, 2007

Muslim vs. American?
Egypt Today
December 2007

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Ron Edmonds (AP)

It may be tempting to lump everyone on one side of the fence or the other, but what about those who can lay claim to both?
By: Ethar El-Katatney

AMERICANS ARE UNSCRUPULOUS, war-mongering, bloodthirsty, decadent infidels seeking to destroy Arab lands and eradicate Muslims, the scourge upon the earth.

Americans are democratic, peace-loving, inherently moral and ethical people, with a noble, altruistic desire to make the world a better place — for you and me and the entire human race.
These two extremes are equally present in the mindset of non-Americans today. We either love America or hate it; the middle ground is shrinking. As a Muslim, if you praise America in the slightest way, you open yourself to a tirade of abuse. And God help you if you make the observation in the midst of a die-hard group of ignorant Arab Muslims — you’ll automatically be labeled as unpatriotic and a traitor to your religion. After all, Americans are killing our Iraqi brothers and sisters, occupying their lands and staunchly supporting Israel, which has been ignoring UN resolutions and rules for over 50 years in their ultimate goal of suppressing the Palestinian people — not to mention the atrocities of Guantanamo Bay and America’s Gestapo-like domestic policies.
“If you’re not with us,” they’ll tell you with a self-satisfied flourish, “then you’re with them.” The statement that silences all opposition. If you’re a good Muslim, then you have to hate America. And that’s that.
But what about American Muslims? That’ll stump them for a bit, before they’ll rally with another string of accusations. “They’re traitors!” one will tell you. “Infidels!” spits out another. And the one who is not totally blindsided by prejudices might say, “They’ve abandoned their roots and culture to integrate into the enemy’s country.”
These polarized extremes, while convenient, leave no room for those who occupy both sides of the fence — for people whose complex identities challenge arbitrary divisions. The realities are much more nuanced and, perhaps, surprising than the politicized fictions.
Three American Muslims living in Fremont, California, recently spoke with et. They’re fom a diverse demographic — and the largest concentration of Afghans in the United States — and make for a unique socio-cultural environment. They’re young and smart, veiled and bearded; their conversation, conducted at machine-gun speed, is punctuated with “hella” and other Californianisms.
Marjan Mojaddidi, a 22-year-old American of Afghan descent, born and raised in the US, had been a manager at Charlotte Russe, a high-end clothing store, for two years. She recently quit to return to university this fall. She’s a chatterbox who likes movies and long walks on the beach.
Yaseen Baseer is an 18-year-old high-school graduate starting classes at the University of California at Davis this year. Born in the US to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother, both of whom have lived most of their lives in the States, he wishes he could speak Urdu.
Venus Mahmoodi, chosen because of her unique name, is also of Afghan descent but was born in Germany and moved to the US at age seven. The 24-year-old is a graduate of the University of San Francisco with a degree in molecular biology and a minor in biochemistry. She just left her job at Stanford University, where she worked as a Life Science Research Assistant to work at the University of California, Berkeley.
So what is their take on being both Muslim and American? Excerpts:
To begin with, I ask the three how they define themselves and what it means to be an American. Turns out it’s a much tougher question than I had thought, with all three frowning and thinking hard. Mahmoodi defines herself as an Afghan, Baseer as an American, and Mojaddidi says Afghan before taking it back and saying both American and Afghan.
MM: People get mad when you say, “I’m American,” when they see you wearing hijab because they’re like, “you’re such a traitor, you’re not American.” But I was born in America, raised in America [] America has done nothing bad to me as a person [so] I define myself as both. It’s a big privilege being an American, you have everything at your fingertips, there’s nothing that you could want and not have in America.
YB: I guess there is a certain honor and prestige associated with being an American.
VM: Being an American means freedom to me. The freedom to be who you want, do what you want and believe in what you want. Even with 9/11 happening six years ago, we in the Bay Area are blessed to be able to be free to be the kind of Muslim we want. I don’t think living in Afghanistan I would have that same freedom.
What do you think of US President George W. Bush’s foreign policy?
MM: America has done a lot of things that I may not agree with, but I live in the country, I don’t hate on it. I can sit there and go, “I hate this about them, and I hate this about them,” but then why do I live in their country? It’s just hypocritical to say, “I hate them, they’re the worst country in the world,” but the next day I eat their food, go to their schools [and] shop at their malls [] You can ask the whitest of white person what they think of Bush’s policies, and they will tell you that they don’t like [them] either.
YB: It’s hard to say [I hate his policy] because I live in the country. It’s hard to reconcile that image of foreign policy to the place where I live, because the place where I live is very peaceful [] Muslims where I live know what is going on, but it is more like a fantasy — they don’t really feel it, they don’t really see those kind of things like the bombings, children suffering and poverty.
VM: I appreciate the fact that I live here [] It’s my home and I don’t want to say anything bad about it. My grandma always says, “We don’t hate this country; there are certain things they do that we are critical of, but we don’t hate it. The things that we have here, we don’t have anywhere else.”
I think that [Bush] is basically thinking that he can do whatever he wants and that he’s not going to be accountable for any of it. He’s making assumptions that everyone is agreeing with what he wants to do, and nobody agrees — from Muslims to non-Muslims to atheists, they disagree.
How easy do you find it to practice Islam?
MM: Muslims have gotten to a point where they’re not ashamed of their religion. So if it’s time to pray, they’ll take their prayer mat out and pray next to the car. If it’s time to pray at the same time as the movie, you go out and do it in the hallway [] and it’s not one person, it’s five in a row. Put your napkins where your forehead is supposed to go, and pray. People might stare but they get used to it, they know that’s what you have to do.
YB: It’s a misconception that there aren’t practicing Muslims living in America. [] In Fremont there are a lot of masjids [mosques], and the Muslim [community] is very vibrant. When you pray five times a day it might come in the way of your schedule, fasting is sometimes tedious when we do physical education in school, and not [joining] certain social groups in school may be a barrier to some people who think they want to be part of them, but I really don’t find it difficult.
VM: Very easy. If I’m walking down the street I don’t have a fear of being murdered, like [the Arab media makes it seem]. It’s easy, so easy to live as a Muslim in America.
What about learning about Islam?
MM: If you really want to learn about religion, there are [methods] available to you. Like, the Zaytuna Institute, and the Rumi bookstore. It’s an excuse if you say, “I can’t find anyone.” Just in our area alone you have Imam Zaid Shakir, Sidi Yahya Rhodus [] you have so many mullahs [religious teachers] and sheikhs; you can pick and choose who to learn from.
YB: There are English-speaking scholars but the people in my masjid speak Urdu so there is kind of a communication gap there, and the place where you get knowledge is limited [only] to a certain extent. I [started off in] a madrasa [Islamic religious school] for four years in Fremont itself.
Did people treat you differently when you wore the hijab or grew a beard?
MM: I started wearing hijab three years ago. I was treated [very] differently. The guys that I used to know didn’t talk to me anymore [ but] doesn’t everyone get treated differently once they start wearing hijab? If you’re in public, it is harder to get jobs, service-oriented jobs. After I wore hijab I was looking for another job; I have two years management experience, and I’m really, really good at my job, but I don’t have the image for it anymore.
VM: I didn’t notice any [difference]. I was 15 [when I took the hijab] and my family encouraged me to, but they didn’t tell me ‘you have to do it.’ [I’ve never felt] like it made life difficult. I went to a Jesuit Catholic school, and I was the only person wearing hijab but it wasn’t noticeable, nobody really cared. People were more respectful than not. I lived in Utah for two years when I was younger though, and if I’d worn hijab there I think I would have been made fun of [because the Muslim community is smaller].
I also wear the jilbab [long black Islamic dress] now. I strongly believe in being who you are, especially as a Muslim woman. When I went to my job interview, I was debating what I should wear, but I said I have to be true to myself. So I wore a black jilbab with a cream hijab and I went in and I didn’t even make it an issue that this is the way I dress. I went in there and I talked to them like a normal person and they saw beyond the hijab and [jilbab]. It wasn’t even an issue to them.
YB: I’m keeping a beard right now [and surprisingly] I get more discrimination from Muslims themselves than from people living here.
MM: I think guys that have a beard have it much harder than women who wear hijab, and they have the image of being a terrorist. [It’s because there is a] difference between a woman and a man: If you see a guy walking down the street and you’re alone, you’re going to get scared [even] if it’s just a regular guy with no beard. If you see a woman walking down the street, you’re not scared. [Muslim men with beards] can’t walk down the street without getting dirty looks, and they can’t go into a job interview confident that they have everything that their job needs and that they’re going to get it.
Have you ever been discriminated against, even though you live in a city with a big Muslim community? What do you do?
MM: A couple of times. One time there was this lady at a store [who called me] Saddam Hussein. We can’t say there’s no discrimination because obviously there is, but the only thing you can do is be a good person. You can’t fight ignorance with ignorance.
VM: I walked into Wal-Mart once and this guy goes, “What is up with all these terrorists?” [The only thing to do is] be a good Muslim, do what you’re supposed to, have respect for others, and show inward and outward faith.
YB: Not at all, I sometimes wear Sunni clothes [white Islamic male dress] after [I go to the] masjid [when] I go shopping and there’s no discrimination, I don’t feel that heat at all. I don’t feel the difference between living in America and living in Saudi Arabia. But I have been to other places in America where the Muslim community is not as strong as it is in Fremont [and there’s more discrimination].
What if you were put in a situation where you had to compromise your beliefs or choose between being an American or a Muslim?
MM: If someone says, “Either you’re Muslim and deported or you’re not Muslim and stay in America,” I’m not going to choose being American, I’m going to choose being a Muslim. [As for compromise] I was offered a really good job at Nike, a management position with very good benefits at a huge $3-million store, but I turned it down [because] I couldn’t work with all the guys. There were only three girls and [around] 40 guys.
YB: Compromising [on Islam] is certainly not a good thing. If it comes down to that level, Imam Zaid Shakir was suggesting that we actually leave the country. If you can’t speak out and defend your religion, then its time to leave. That’s what the Prophet (PBUH) did; he made the hijrah [migration] so it’s not something disgraceful.
When I see a Muslim who [compromises greatly] I personally look down upon them. You cannot compromise your core values for something that’s superficial. Everywhere we see Muslims looked down upon, and every Muslim living in America has a greater obligation to correct that misconception, more so than any other Muslim in the world, because we have more opportunities to do that. [Integration] is a good thing but not overly integrated [to the extent] that you’re losing Islam.
VM: There’s a girl I know whose husband is an engineer. He went to a job interview and he had a beard. They told him, “Oh no, we don’t want to hire someone with a beard. If you shave it off, we’ll hire you.” He said no and left. The guy called him right back afterward and told him, “I was testing you. I wanted to know: Are you going to be under the influence of whatever I say? Are you someone that’s wishy-washy or are you going to stick to what you believe in?”
What about the Muslims who are fighting in the American army? Do you think they are compromising?
MM: I honestly don’t know what to think about them.
YB: I have no ill feelings towards those fighting, although I feel not hypocrisy, but contradiction [that they’re] fighting against our Muslim brothers who are defending their own lands.
VM: In America, it’s your choice to join the army; we haven’t had the draft since the [1970s]. They have the choice [of whether or not to join]. I have no clue what they should do. This is a really difficult question, because if you’re against the war, they say that you don’t support the troops. If you support the troops, then you have to be for the war, and there’s nothing in between.
Food for Thought

We live in a world where we have to be open-minded, where we cannot allow misconceptions and stereotypes to be a part of our judgment. Just because someone’s passport is American does not automatically mean that he has sided with ‘them’ and is content to let ‘us’ rot. Muslims are Muslims, regardless if they were named after the Prophet (PBUH) or after a planet, if they were born in Mecca or in Australia. In fact, it is those Muslims who weren’t brought up in a country with mosques on every corner who deserve our respect for being Muslims and true to their religion even as a minority.
And as for Americans in general? Americans and the US government are two separate things, even if one did elect the other. As Mojaddidi tells us:
“They’re not bad people. There are people who defend Muslims and fight for Muslims on a different level that you wouldn’t understand. I know this 18 year-old girl who would cry and defend Islam [to her parents]. Why would she have to defend Islam? And this is a person you would never expect to [defend Muslims]; she has her cheeks pierced, her lower lip pierced, tattoos going all the way down her arms, and this huge tattoo right on her chest. There are really good people there, you just have to give them a chance.” et

One Response

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  1. Zeynab said, on January 25, 2008 at 9:51 am


    Good post!

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